Lost in Time Watching Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows Opening sequence with waves crashing over rocks

Victoria Winters was fascinated with the past, so much so that she ultimately got lost in it while chasing after a guy that she picked up during an 18th century witch trial. The Collins clan of 1960s Maine would never see her again and Victoria’s story never reached its logical conclusion— that the foundling-turned-governess was actually the daughter of wealthy family matriarch, Elizabeth— during the television run of Dark Shadows

Some might scold me for spoiling one of the gazillion plot lines that drove Dark Shadows between 1966 and 1971, but we’re talking about a daytime soap that aired more than 50 years ago. The expiration date for spoilers passed before the Watergate scandal pre-empted ABC’s daytime programming and sent housewives into a tizzy. Besides, there’s a point to this reference. Like Victoria, I spent much of 2023 with one foot in the present and one the past as I worked my way through the 1200+ episodes that comprise the original series and are streaming. Unlike Victoria, I still exist in the present timeline and am here to tell you what I learned from the past. 

One night early in the year, I scrolled and scrolled through Tubi looking for something to watch and came across Dark Shadows. I had seen a handful of episodes previously, thanks to VHS and a few random TV reruns, but that was so long ago that I could watch this as if it were brand new. 

The first episode I saw began with blackmail and grave robbing— typical soap opera stuff- and ended with a hand popping out of a coffin. I was instantly hooked by the emergence of Barnabas Collins and thief-turned-thrall Willie Loomis, so engaged that a couple dozen episodes passed before I realized there was another Tubi listing with the 200+ pre-Barnabas episodes. By then, I was in too deep. The real beginning of Dark Shadows would have to wait. So would any other TV show that’s not General Hospital. I was now committed to watching Dark Shadows two or three half-hour episodes at a time— maybe five or six in my worst cases of binging— until I got through this monster of a series. 

Dark Shadows took viewers from black-and-white to color television with the epic tale of the Collins clan, whose legacy of secrets went back centuries and manifested in hauntings, seances, time travel and mysterious relatives, the best-remembered of whom is the vampire Barnabas. It packed references to mythology, literature, theater and film into storylines where the “monsters” aren’t actually the villains.  (If there is a moral in Dark Shadows, it’s watch out for those ministers.) It’s a clear influence on the outrageous daytime stories that would follow, from Helena Cassadine’s curses on General Hospital to Marlena’s possession on Days of Our Lives to supernatural-driven soaps like Passions and Port Charles. Five years is a short life in daytime television, but in that small span of time, Dark Shadows made a big impact.

In 2023, I fell hard for Dark Shadows because it is the antithesis of contemporary pop culture. It wasn’t made for binge-watching or viral fame or theme park crossovers. The special effects are primitive by today’s standards and the acting is more theatrical than what you would see on TV now, but all this is part of the aesthetic. It’s a little gothic, a little psychedelic and very over-the-top. And, why wouldn’t you want a show that looks and sounds as extra as its storylines? There’s no place for subtlety in a world where an on-again-off-again vampire finds multiple ways to travel through time, but can’t find a permanent cure for his bloodlust.

In its time, Dark Shadows was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon and with good reason. It has everything from vampires and werewolves to witches and demon spawn to mad scientists and Frankenstein’s monster.

A single character arc could easily encompass an entire semester’s reading list for a lit class. Take Quentin Collins, who first appears as a ghost, then as a Byronic hero who is cursed to be a werewolf until his lycanthropy is transferred to a painting that also prevents him from aging, bringing Dark Shadows’ Dorian Gray all the way up to the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s, when he falls into an Orphean quest to rescue his true love-of-the-moment from death. I know, it’s a lot. 

But, there’s more, like, Angelique, the witch responsible for the original vampire curse. She’s truly one of daytime television’s top villains ever. Mess with her and she’ll fuck with your family for generations. Still, it’s also hard not to feel a little sorry for her because you’re never quite sure if she intended to do something so awful, or if she just let her powers get a little out of control. If Angelique’s antics in the main timeline weren’t enough, in the Rebecca-meets-Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde storyline that takes place in a parallel version of 1970, she is quite possibly the evilest evil twin in soap opera history. Lara Parker, who played Angelique and sadly died this year, did a phenomenal job of playing a character that was simultaneously awful and awesome. 

And then there’s my favorite character in the series, Julia Hoffman, a woman of science and magic who, depending on the situation, might prescribe an experimental blood treatment or a seance. She’s really the brains of the series, but she’s also a lady doctor in 1960s America, so she has to deal with her undead patient spouting things like, “stop thinking like woman and start thinking like a doctor.” Julia and Barnabas’ relationship is essentially the precursor to Mulder and Scully. They solve one supernatural mystery after the next, repeatedly saving the Collins family, particularly young David, who has a habit of getting possessed.

Barnabas and Julia should be a couple, but Barnabas is too busy pining for younger ladies who are either dead or otherwise unavailable. I’m of the belief that Barnabas wastes his time longing  for the ones he can’t have because he’s protecting Julia, who is obviously hot for him, from Angelique’s wrath. OMG, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this.  And I’ve only scratched the surface of the show. (If you want more, read Dark Shadows Every Day, which recapped every epsiode.)

But, that’s part of what’s been so much fun about spending much of this year watching a show that’s so far outside the zeitgeist of 2023. There are some good Dark Shadows fan sites that you’ll find if you dig around long enough, but, more likely, your searches will turn up a bunch of results for that Tim Burton/Johnny Depp abomination. In a way, that’s a shame because Dark Shadows is a wonderful show and more people should find their way to it, whether it’s for the first time or the tenth time.

The upside, though, is that it’s actually possible to watch Dark Shadows without a mountain of hot takes trying to skew your view of a character or fans throwing tantrums on social media because they didn’t like the conclusion of a series. I watched Dark Shadows when I felt like it without any pressure to have the correct opinion, or any immediate opinion really, on what I just saw. Once I finished the show and reentered 2023 streaming life, I realized that’s a pretty good way to watch TV. 

Liz O. is an L.A.-based writer and DJ. Read her recently published work and check out her upcoming gigs.